Coach Paul Rodio of the St. Joseph High School boys basketball team watched the Wildcats try to play at a slow tempo in a preseason scrimmage against St. Augustine Prep last month.
Things did not go well.
“We didn’t look like us,” Rodio said. “It just look like discombobulated.”
The Wildcats decided to speed things up after that day and so far they haven’t slowed down. St. Joe presses full court and fast-breaks as much possible. The Wildcats are 5-0 and averaging 81.6 points per game.
“It’s unconventional,” Rodio said, “and I was a little nervous about doing it, but we said ‘Why fight what’s working?’
Marcellus Ross, a 6-foot-3 junior guard, is averaging 24 points and is 48 points away from the 1,000-point mark for his career. St. Joe hosts Middle Township (3-2) in a Cape-Atlantic League United Division game at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“Not only does it get us involved,” Ross said of the up-tempo play, “but it gets the crowd involved, our parents involved. Everybody is cheering. It makes it easier to play."
Rodio, who is the son of South Jersey’s winningest coach Paul Rodio of St. Augustine, is in his fourth season at St. Joe. This could be the best team of his tenure.
St. Joe impressed during the Christmas break by beating Pt. Pleasant Beach 94-87 and host school Immaculata 73-71 to win the Monsignor Eugene B. Kelly Memorial Christmas Classic in Sommerville (Somerset County). Pt. Pleasant Beach is a perennial Group I and Shore Conference power.
Ross emerged as one of South Jersey’s top players as a sophomore when he averaged 20.4 points. Rodio said Ross is a more versatile player this season.
“I grew up watching all these (players) my dad had,” Rodio said. “I tell (Ross) to be the best player you can be, you just don’t want to be a shooter. You want to make everyone better around you.”
Ross has been far from St. Joe’s only standout.
“Our strength is in our numbers,” Rodio said. “We play 12 or 13 guys. We don’t have a drop off when people get tired. If people get tired, we just go to the next guy.”
Freshman Devin Benson is averaging 8.6 points and has emerged as the starting point guard. Junior forwards Dimitrius Parrish (10.6) and Corey Blackwell (7 ppg) have been two of the Wildcats most consistent players. Sean Morris, 6-5, 280-pound junior who starred for the Wildcats state Non-Public I championship football team this fall, sank the winning foul shots in the win over Immaculata.
Rodio knows that playing at such a quick pace has its risks. St. Joe led Pt. Pleasant Beach 65-41 at halftime before holding on in the second half to win by seven points. Rodio knows there are some games where the Wildcats will have to run more half-court plays to win.
“We just can’t keep running, running, running," Rodio said. "If one guy is not going at a (fast pace), one breakdown can lead to an uncontested layup. It looks bad at times. We’re trying to teach the kids a happy medium.”
The Wildcats face plenty of challenges ahead. The CAL United Division consists of the league’s schools with the smallest enrollments. It is usually the CAL division with the least amount of depth but this season United Division teams Wildwood Catholic (6-0), Pleasantville (4-1) and Middle Township (3-2) have all impressed. The top two teams in each of the CAL’s three divisions qualify for the league tournament in February.
St. Joe is sometimes easy to overlook when it comes to basketball. The Wildcats football team with its 19 state titles since 1993 casts a large shadow.
“When you think of St. Joe, you think of the football team,” Ross said. “I want people to know the basketball team is up and coming. We’re off to a great start. I think if we keep doing what we’re doing, St. Joe can become not only a football school but a basketball school too.”